If you grew up before smartphones, tablets and the internet, it’s easy to feel concerned about how technology is isolating our postsecondary students – especially when we walk by large groups of them all staring into their phones instead of actually talking to one another.
Most students have never known a time when all the world’s knowledge, plus their whole social circle, wasn’t at their fingertips. The release of the iPhone® in 2007 doesn’t seem all that long ago – and yet, today’s college freshmen were just beginning second grade back then.
Many professors have valid concerns about the impact of technology on students (and all of us). But if we focus too much on the challenges of our technological reality, we miss the huge opportunities it affords. Technology –in our lecture halls, seminar rooms and innovation labs – can get students talking, and listening, to each other. The key is to be open to new approaches to communication.
Here are three reasons to be incredibly optimistic about using technology to get students communicating:
1. Technology can bring out more voices
Getting up the nerve to raise your hand and contribute to a discussion can be tough. I can still remember how large my first university course felt – and how it just didn’t seem like I had anything important enough to say. And even in smaller active learning spaces – where student experience is the name of the game – many have trouble actively taking part in class. It’s easy for introverts (or anyone) to feel overwhelmed and stop talking – and then stop showing up all together.
Technology helps us remember that communication goes beyond talk. Students who struggle to explain their thinking in words may be able to map out a project plan in a digital sketch. Others who rarely get up the nerve to speak in front of everyone may do better by jotting an observation on a sticky note – and then expanding on it when asked.
That’s why we designed Span™ Workspace to let students contribute using digital notes, sketches and images. It also makes it easy to give students think time, when they can add ideas to their personal tray before they share with everyone.
2. Technology can get students to actually talk to each other
When I used to teach communications courses at a polytechnic many years ago, I would try to get everyone involved in some active discussion. But there was a problem – my students weren’t actually communicating directly with each other. I was the hub, commenting on ideas and directing traffic.
I remember the contrast when students were giving persuasive presentations on topics they chose. One student explained why she was proud to wear a hijab. Another shared her past experience living on the streets. The conversation these speeches sparked was so vibrant that I just got out of the way and let the students direct the discussion. It was one of my favorite assignments, and I struggled to get the same level of engagement during other activities.
But in the years since, I’ve seen how technology can create the same level of discourse, with little or no mediation. From passionate discussions on course message boards to flipped classroom environments, technology can be a democratizing force in the postsecondary space. And the more students are given the chance to connect directly with each other, the more I find they have to say.
3. Technology can connect students everywhere
It’s amazing how quickly technology is eroding the boundaries between school and work. And it starts young – my son was in first grade when he first got a chance to get on a Skype® call with an expert in the topic he was studying.
And if that’s possible in elementary school, it’s amazing how far postsecondary institutions can extend the classroom. All it takes is a UC&C platform, a good audio conferencing system and some imagination. The chance to forge a connection with a leading scholar in a student's field can totally raise the stakes for communication, making questions more specific and understanding more nuanced.
And that's just the beginning. With the help of cloud-based tools, collaborative group projects can now be undertaken whether students are in different institutions, different cities or different continents. Graduate students can more easily connect with mentors to support a niche thesis topic. Add to this all the ways students are engaging with people around the world on their own social networks in their free time. Their world has become smaller than we ever could have imagined.
Not all these benefits are a given. It takes a deliberate effort on the part of colleges and universities to find the best tools to help achieve their goals. Technology creators also need to listen to professors to find out what features and capabilities students really need.
But when the right technology comes together in the right learning environment, the results can be transformative. And this makes me think that technology that helps, not hinders, student communication might be exactly what we need.
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published January 2016 and has been updated.
Posted on February 6, 2019